Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>High Noon:</em> Liberal Classic? Conservative Screed?

Or something else…

In the collection of American movie classics, High Noon is almost alone when it comes to interpretation: It is an enigma. Casablanca‘s claim to fame is that, like Hamlet, it is filled with quotations; Citizen Kane is a profound character study; Gone with the Wind is a paean to moral innocence and social ignorance. Still, these three are, like other famous movies, fairly clear-cut in meaning. By contrast, High Noon, bristling with ambiguity, is a veritable Rorschach test.

On the one hand, it is the movie most requested for viewing by American presidents. Eisenhower, no great movie lover, saw it three times in the White House and was riveted by it. Clinton, who considers it his favorite, saw it no less than twenty times and recommended it to his successor. It is also the favorite movie of the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, while another kind of president, Tony Soprano, likewise is intrigued with it.

Clearly, leaders, even if surrounded by battalions of aides and advisors, sense that the burden of decision making isolates them and that, at the end of the day, they, like Marshal Kane, are alone. The younger President Bush surely must (rightly or wrongly) see the movie as an eerie prophecy of how the American good guy would find so few in the world community willing to help him take on the international villain, Saddam Hussein.

And yet, and yet…in the 1970s, the superpatriotic, ultra-anticommunist John Wayne called that same movie “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”! Where the leaders interpreted it as an allegory of how hard it is for a visionary to get average people on board for a crusade, Wayne apparently saw it as a celebration of collectivism, as arguing — to use the language of a later generation — that it takes a village to stop the villains. He preferred the hero — and indeed played such a role in Rio Bravo — as the all-American rugged individualist who turns down offers of help.

Certainly the collectivist view was in the mind of High Noon screenwriter, Carl Foreman (right), a former Communist who had started the script as an allegory about the United Nations. Then, while working on it in 1951, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and ordered to name his former Communist associates. He refused to do so. He now came to see the script as a dramatization of current events: “That was perfectly recognizable to people in Hollywood when they saw the picture, because I was using dialogue that was in spirit the same thing I was hearing — ‘Don’t do that; the town has so much trouble; go away.'” And away Foreman went — all the way to exile in Britain after being fired.

That liberal view was indeed dominant. When released in 1952, the movie was seen as an allegory about the evils of McCarthyism. It shared this distinction with Arthur Miller’s play from that same year, The Crucible. Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials of the 1690s showed how one vicious person’s wild accusations can ruin many lives; High Noon dramatized the predicament of the victims of the accusations. It showed the isolation that overtook people who tried to do what they saw to be the right thing (i.e., accused of being Communists, they would not inform on others) even if that meant standing alone.

Under the impetus of Senator Joseph McCarthy and of right-wing organizations like Red Channels, blacklisting had became commonplace in the early 1950s. If someone was accused of being a Communist, the world caved in for him. Suddenly phones stopped ringing, friends grew distant, acquaintances crossed the street rather than having to be seen greeting him. Colleagues proclaimed their willingness to defend him but refrained from doing so because, you understand, they had families to support. Such disasters, be it noted, overtook not just card-carrying, Moscow-oriented, dyed-in-the-wool Commies, but innocent bystanders who happened to have had the same name as an alleged Communist, or fair-minded people who had the temerity to ask that the accused person be given his day in court or his right to the Fifth Amendment. To defend an accused person on these grounds was to become an accused person in turn.

In the movie, the hero is a marshal of a Southwestern town who faces a showdown with a returning killer whom he had brought to justice. Since all the townspeople are gripped with fear, he will have to stand alone. (“I’ve got a wife and kids,” says one of the townspeople when opting out.) People pull away from the marshal because they want to live another day, just as people pulled away from alleged or former Communists for fear of being thought guilty by association.

Yet though Senator McCarthy is now ancient history, High Noon is not at all dated. Anyone catching the film on late night TV or on the Classics rack of the corner Video store is struck by a theme which no one noticed in the 1950s. The movie, for heaven’s sake, has a strong conservative thrust!

The villain, Frank Miller, is a killer who was sentenced to death. Then the people “up North” changed the sentence to lifelong imprisonment, and then he was pardoned after a mere five years. Now he is coming back to town to settle things with the marshal who had apprehended him. The viewer of the grainy old black and white film rubs his eyes in disbelief. The details are as fresh as this morning’s newspaper. How many times have we heard, thanks to right-wing radio talk show hosts, of vicious criminals who are freed after only a few years of incarceration — men released even though they threatened to get even with those who put them away?

What the movie-makers understood in 1951 by attributing (thrice, no less) the commutation of the sentence to the “people up North” is not clear, but in the conservative era of the last quarter century “up North” clearly means, as Limbaugh et al would have it, the latte-guzzling liberal establishment; the “elitist” brie-and-Chablis set out of touch with working people; the East Coast-urban-Harvard hoity-toity crowd; the ACLU big on legal technicalities and small on apparent guilt; and all those “bleeding hearts” more worried about the rights of “criminals” than the sufferings of victims. It meant Governor Dukakis in 1987 releasing Willie Horton, or it means some judge today releasing a rapist or murderer who proceeds to resume his spree. As one character in the movie says plaintively, in words that anticipate modern conservative complaints about “revolving door justice,” “You risk your skin catching killers and the juries [or judges?] turn them loose so they can come and shoot at you again.”

The film therefore turns out to harbor a deeply conservative vision. It shows a community cast into fear and trembling by a criminal justice system that lacks the will to put dangerous men away for good, either by capital punishment or by life sentences without parole. In numerous camera shots, an anguished Gary Cooper is seen walking the streets of the town, worried, even fearful, over the upcoming rendezvous and frustrated by the cowardice of the townspeople. Here you have — the movie implies repeatedly — the results of liberal social experimentation. In a plush, secure chamber in New York or Boston, an intellectual judge — a Holmes or Brandeis — deals with legal abstractions, and thousands of miles away a vulnerable frontier town must cope with the horrible real-life consequences.

The conservative theme is reinforced by the subplot. The sheriff’s wife is a Quaker; she does not believe in violence even on behalf of a good cause. Yet in the showdown at the end, when her husband is alone in a shoot-out with the four villains, one of the four falls dead. The bullet did not come from the direction of the marshall. The camera shifts, and we see that it came from her. She shot him in the back, no less. She stands there, head bowed, crushed by the fact that she had to use violence after all or else see her husband killed. Acting like any pro-NRA conservative, she is, to use the saying that made the rounds decades ago, a liberal who has been mugged by experience.

Who in the 1950s would have thought that so liberal a movie could take on so conservative a cast? But of course the movie did not change; rather, we changed. It is oft said that what separates a work of art from mere bestseller schlock is that the former is relevant in each age while the latter dies with the fads and fashions of the day. A work of art is like a mirror in which each age sees its own face, its own set of priorities and anxieties. Another way to put it is to say that selectivity is unavoidable in art or life, but in propaganda the selectivity is determined by ideology, while in art the selectivity is determined by verisimilitude. Being true to all the messiness and contradictions of life results in a movie in which liberal and conservative considerations stumble over each other. The liberal theme is still present in the movie, albeit not at the moment uppermost — though it well might have become so during the pre-school sex abuse and repressed incest scare of a dozen years ago and will probably recur during some future moral or political epidemic.

The truth is that High Noon is neither liberal nor conservative because such ideologies are oversimplifications of reality. Those who put the movie in one camp or the other are merely ignoring details that do not fit in with their smug generalizations.

Some years ago, movie directors and critics complained about the colorization of old black and white film classics undertaken by Ted Turner’s company. As High Noon shows, however, the changes in color effected by the engineers are downright trivial when compared to the changes in emphases effected by Father Time.